Lampedusa horror part of worldwide migration tragedy

The Italian island of Lampedusa was once again a scene of horror as a boat overloaded with around 500 migrants from the African countries of Eretria, Ghana, and Somalia went down, with a loss of several hundred lives. Meanwhile, complaints have arisen that Nepalese migrant workers in oil-rich Qatar, involved in building the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, are subjected to slave-labor conditions. In Greece, the government has pounced on the anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn political party, but the Greek government’s own policies are anti-immigrant.

All this is happing while at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, nations debated the issue of migration at the “2013 High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development.”

The Lampedusa tragedy is just the worst of many incidents in which poor Africans fleeing from impossible economic conditions in the Sahel and Horn areas of Africa have run into trouble at sea.

In this latest case, the boat’s motor gave out within sight of Lampedusa. Someone set a towel on fire in the hope that the glow would be noticed and rescue would come. Instead, the boat caught fire and the panicked movement of the passengers away from the blaze caused it to capsize. It is feared that most of the 500 passengers are dead. The government of Italy, where African immigrants are not treated well, declared official mourning.

This has happened often in the movement of migrants from Africa to Europe. Sometimes the migrants move by boat to Lampedusa; in other instances, they manage to storm the barrier fences of Melilla, a small Spanish enclave on the North African Coast. They are people who can’t make a living in Africa, because corporate globalization has eliminated their sources of work, because political instability and war have created refugee crises, and because the Sahara Desert has been expanding, affecting the economies of some of the poorest countries on earth.

The migrants hope to get asylum in the European Union so as to get decent jobs. But in many cases, they end up as very low paid undocumented workers, standing out in European countries because of their dark skins, preyed on by the police and the underworld, and the scapegoat for demagogic right wing politicians who blame them for the terrible state of many European economies since the 2008 beginning of the world financial and economic crisis.

Migration to the United States is also spurred by the impact of corporate globalization on workers, small farmers and the poor in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Drug gangs and corrupt police, as well as the estate guards of the wealthy, have created so much violence that many people, rather than staying home, risk trying to get over the border to the United States, an endeavor now more physically perilous since the massive crackdown by U.S. immigration authorities has pushed migrants into the most dangerous crossing areas.

The words of the dialogue at the United Nations, by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and others, were very nice. But unless the citizens of the wealthier countries begin to question and oppose the policies of their own governments, they will be filed away and forgotten.

There is already an important United Nations instrument on the issue of the abuse of migrant workers: The International Convention for the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families is a powerful document, but of the 193 U.N. member states, only 47 have ratified it. None of the major wealthy states to which immigrants come has done so. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, and the U.S. have not. This makes it harder for poorer nations to raise the issue in international forums.

Starting on Saturday, Oct. 5, immigrants’ rights organizations and their allies from organized labor and other sectors will be carrying out important demonstrations in 80 U.S. towns and cities demanding reform of U.S. immigration laws, with an emphasis on the legalization of the 11 million undocumented. The demonstrations will also demand that the Obama administration use executive action to sharply reduce the record level of about 400,000 deportations per year. Organizers promise to keep demonstrating until victory.

More and more people in the United States realize that U.S. trade and economic policies are directly linked to the conditions that impel people to migrate in such numbers. Forcing poor countries to accept trade and aid only on the condition that they open up their markets to dumping, privatize their public services, permit wealthy corporations to transform vast areas of cropland into agribusiness enterprises (displacing thousands of small farmers), and impose the same austerity on their own people that is causing such suffering in Europe and the United States, has to stop.

If not, there will be many Lampedusas.

Photo: Deceased victims of the shipwreck. AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.